Learning To Fly, Part III

planepic.jpgMy brother, Christofer, willed me two things when he went off to college: a periodically empty house with an immediately unsuspicious mother (and, ergo, the license to throw frequent though reasonably-sized parties; there were no pizzas on the turntable at my house), and a handmade wooden lock box.

Chris built the simple, stained-pine rectangle in wood shop. It was roughly the size of a shoe box, had a single shelf, a simple brass closure, and a small Master lock. The mechanism was easily jimmied, and the box itself would likely have shattered were it thrown to the ground, but still retained an aura or security.

I don’t know what Chris stored in it, but as soon as I gained possession of the box, I packed it with semi-precious coins, discarded watch faces, polished stones, and scraps of paper with my secret dreams.

Years later, well after college, I found the box in the basement. It was packed in one of two large cardboard boxes labeled, “Ben’s Room.” All of my yearbooks were there, an envelope full of photographs, a bulletin board shaped like the letter B, a stuffed monster from “Where The Wild Things Are” (my favorite: the blue one with a gray beard and horns), and the box.

I pried it open, sorted through the artifacts, and read the dreams. Of the dozen or scraps of paper scribbled in the sloppy, sleepy cursive of a high school student, more than half were nightmares about plane crashes.

Now, I was 27-years-old at the time. I’d been here in Hell’s Kitchen for a few years at that point, possibly in my third or fourth year at MTV News. The not-so-gentle nudging of my then-girlfriend partnered with my own machinations on the subject had recently prompted me to quit smoking pot, a once-recreational pass time that had turned insidiously frequent (as in, multiple time a day). The primary result (in addition to vastly improved mental and respiratory clarity) was a torrent of nightmares, almost all about plane crashes.

I have no doubt, Dear Reader, that you know the rest of that back story well. My parents divorced when I was ten-years-old, and I spent a lot of time shuttling between them often unaccompanied always very sad in airplanes. (In fact, they didn’t have those pesky “No Electronics During Takeoff” rules back then, so I’d listen to the saddest song I owned — The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” — every time I flew away from my dad.) Years later, and iota of psychological archeology led me to conclude that I’d grafted the traumas of my parent’s divorce (and its ancillary fallout) onto those heartbreaking flights. Mixed up in the unconscious of a teenager along with these frequently-televised images of catastrophe (one of my earliest memories of Chicago was local coverage of the 1979 crash of American Airlines #91 at O’Hare), I was left with these terrific, horrific dreams.

Pretty simply, in Sigmund Freud-like terms, the random, violent catastrophe of air disaster was replaced by the seemingly-random, emotionally violent catastrophe of my parent’s divorce. To take it one step further, I unconsciously assumed that every marriage (or commitment of any sort,for that matter) would result in disaster.

Of course, like any other artist, I endeavored to work out those demons on vinyl, which is why I wrote the song “Crash Site,” which later went on to be the title track of my 2001 release, Crash Site which, of course, was scheduled to be released two weeks after September 11 which rendered “Crash Site” a pretty terrible title for an album and, worse, “Leave my body where it was found” a pretty poorly timed lyric.

Fast forward a few years. Armed with all of this knowledge, the dreams have mostly subsided. I never actually fly without taking a tiny dose of Xanax, just enough to make takeoffs (the instant when the plane defies gravity itself by pulling away from the runway is always the worst) tolerable. I’m married myself. Recently, though, the dreams have returned en force.

This morning, the plane crash theme manifested in two scenes both with a subtle, hopeful twist. In the first, I am a news reporter pacing the crumpled ruins of a downed flight on a dark, rain-slick tarmac. Next, I am watching a news piece in which much of the process and personnel around flight have been replaced by automation and robots. As I watch a jet being assembled in automated, huge, Transformer-like pieces, though, I wonder (in my dream), “Does the absence of human intervention increase or decrease the likelihood of disaster?” I wake just as I conclude the former.

Of course, there are all sorts of reason’s for the dream’s recurrence in recent weeks.

Sure, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III averted disaster when he piloted US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson, but the he landed the thing just a few hundred feet from my patio. A little too close (psychologically, anyway) for comfort.

These days, my life continues to pass through plains (pun intended) not dissimilar from my parents. And these days, Abbi and I are discussing the timeline around becoming parents, and owning our own home. I expect that Abbi and I will hit turbulence, but we’re committed to landing this baby (again, pun intended) together. What’s more, in December, with the assumption of leadership for the entire news department, my responsibility — and, ergo the likelihood of disaster — grew.

Still, the dreams persist. And they probably will.

In “Cedars Of Lebanon,”Bono sings, “Choose your enemies carefully ‘cuz they will define you / Make them interesting ‘cuz in some ways they will mind you.”

I’m not sure I had a choice in this one. But I am sure of one thing: the lock box is open. It’s darkness may haunt me still, but the specter of its contents will not stop me from soaring.